The B.1.617 variant of Covid-19, first detected in India, has now been detected in 53 countries around the world. Given the fears that this variant was behind India’s devastating second wave of the pandemic, which saw the healthcare system collapse in a number of cities and the death toll climb massively, many in those nations are concerned about a similar story playing out.
But those fears have also led to another concern: Anti-Indian racism.
Despite clear guidelines from the World Health Organization that mutating variants of Covid-19 should not be identified by their countries of origin, the association of the B.1.617 virus with Indians has led to a number of worrisome incidents in different parts of the world.
The B.1.617 variant of the novel coronavirus, first discovered in India, has been called the “Indian variant” of the disease (as were variants B.1.1.7, P.1, and B.1.351 – called “UK variant”, “Brazil variant”, and “South African variant” respectively). The new variant appears to have provoked racism against people of Indian origin, with reports of incidents coming in from countries like Singapore, Canada, and the United States.
Covid-19 and racism
The pattern of incidents is a reminder of the hatred meted out to Chinese and other Asian communities across the world after Covid-19 was first discovered in late 2019. In the United States, those attacks were also fueled by comments made by Donald Trump, the former US President.
At the time, Human Rights Watch pointed out that “political parties and groups, including in the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Greece, France, and Germany have also latched onto the Covid-19 crisis to advance anti-immigrant, white supremacist, ultra-nationalist, anti-semitic, and xenophobic conspiracy theories that demonize refugees, foreigners, prominent individuals, and political leaders.
It called on governments to “take urgent steps to prevent racist and xenophobic violence and discrimination linked to the Covid-19 pandemic while prosecuting racial attacks against Asians and people of Asian descent.”
Talk of the ‘Indian variant’ – and the idea that Indians are responsible for its spread – seems to have provoked similar responses in some places.
In Singapore, a 30-year-old Chinese man was arrested in May after he allegedly assaulted and abused a 55-year-old woman of Indian origin who was walking along the Choa Chu Kang Drive, Channel News Asia reported. According to the Singapore Police Force, the man reportedly told the woman to wear her mask properly, leading to an altercation.
Reacting to the incident, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister of Singapore, said that he was “disappointed and seriously concerned” because of the attack. “The attack goes against everything that our multiracial society stands for, and the mutual respect and racial harmony that we hold so dear. It harms our international reputation more than we realise,” the prime minister said in a statement.
Another Indian family was also subjected to racist remarks in Singapore when a man allegedly confronted one of them about their face mask and told them not to “come and spread the virus” (in Singapore), The Straits Times reported.
The country’s Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam acknowledged the wave of racism, pointing out that some political parties were using coded language and dog-whistles to encourage racism and xenophobia.
“That is dangerous for Singapore. Because first, it’ll be expat Indians. Then, it will come to Singaporean Indians... If we go down this route, eventually all Indians can be a target of hate,” Shanmugam said. “Comments on [some] sites have Indians being called ‘cockroaches’, ‘rapists’, and so on.”
Speaking in the Singapore Parliament, Shanmugam called on opposition parties to take a stand against this behaviour, saying, “the majority of Singaporeans are decent and not racist, but if we continue to fan the flames of racism, we will get to a more uncomfortable position.”
Over the last year, the conversation about systemic racism in the US has exploded, alongside the Black Lives Matter protests as well as the anti-Asian incidents following the Covid-19 pandemic. The Stop AAPI Hate Report said that 3,795 incidents of racist attacks against Asian-Americans were reported in the US between March 19, 2020 and February 28, 2021. Out of the reported incidents, 11.1% were cases of physical assault.
According to police data quoted by Voice of America, racial attacks on Asians in the US spiked by a whopping 164% in the first quarter of 2021. These were fuelled by Trump’s frequent references to coronavirus as “China virus” and “Kung-flu virus”.
With the advent of the B.1.617 variant, there have been fears that something similar may play out with the Indian-American community, one of the largest immigrant communities in the country. Social media users have highlighted posts and messages that seem to presume all Indians are responsible for spreading the variant.
Arun Venugopal, a journalist based out of New York City, shared one such message that warned, “Edison or New Jersey shouldn’t become another India.”
New-York based publication The Juggernaut also highlighted WhatsApp and Facebook messages that are being circulated in the US blaming the Indian community for the spread of the infectious variant.
On April 22, the newspaper Journal de Montreal published an image of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, clad in Indian clothes, on its front page.
The headline that read “the variant from India has arrived” in French was taken as a racist attack against the community, following which the newspaper had to publish an apology due to backlash.
Writing in the Conversation, Jasmeet Bahia said that, “as COVID-19 cases rose across Canada, regions with large South Asian populations became targets for politicians and the public... What the media and government officials failed to acknoweldge is that immigrant communities are largely frontline workers, who had little choice but to go into work during the pandemic.”
On April 27, Australia announced a strict ban on flights from India till May 15, even for its own citizens. The government also threatened to penalise the offenders with up to five years in prison and impose fines. At the time, several Australian cricketers were in India, participating in the now-suspended Indian Premier League.
“The real question is why those flying from India are being singled out. Such drastic steps were not in place when the US, the UK and Europe were going through similarly deadly and infectious COVID outbreaks in the past year,” wrote Sukhmani Khorana. “One possible explanation is the Indian community in Australia is simply an easy target, especially when India is in an unprecedented crisis.”
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